Politics

New York Governor's Office Hobbled State Ethics Inquiries

July 23, 2014

With Albany rocked by a seemingly endless barrage of scandals and arrests, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo set up a high-powered commission last summer to root out corruption in state politics. It was barely two months old when its investigators, hunting for violations of campaign-finance laws, issued a subpoena to a media-buying firm that had placed millions of dollars’ worth of advertisements for the New York State Democratic Party.

The investigators did not realize that the firm, Buying Time, also counted Mr. Cuomo among its clients, having bought the airtime for his campaign when he ran for governor in 2010.

Word that the subpoena had been served quickly reached Mr. Cuomo’s most senior aide, Lawrence S. Schwartz. He called one of the commission’s three co-chairs, William J. Fitzpatrick, the district attorney in Syracuse.

“This is wrong,” Mr. Schwartz said, according to Mr. Fitzpatrick, whose account was corroborated by three other people told about the call at the time. He said the firm worked for the governor, and issued a simple directive:

“Pull it back.”

The subpoena was swiftly withdrawn. The panel’s chief investigator explained why in an email to the two other co-chairs later that afternoon.

“They apparently produced ads for the governor,” she wrote.

The pulled-back subpoena was the most flagrant example of how the commission, established with great ceremony by Mr. Cuomo in July 2013, was hobbled almost from the outset by demands from the governor’s office.

While the governor now maintains he had every right to monitor and direct the work of a commission he had created, many commissioners and investigators saw the demands as politically motivated interference that hamstrung an undertaking that the governor had publicly vowed would be independent.

The commission developed a list of promising targets, including a lawmaker suspected of using campaign funds to support a girlfriend in another state and pay tanning-salon bills. The panel also highlighted activities that it saw as politically odious but perfectly legal, like exploiting a loophole to bundle enormous campaign contributions.

But a three-month examination by The New York Times found that the governor’s office deeply compromised the panel’s work, objecting whenever the commission focused on groups with ties to Mr. Cuomo or on issues that might reflect poorly on him.

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